Breaking Down the WVU-ECU Matchup By Position
WVU comes into Saturday as a big favorite. Here’s why.
By Franklin Markel
Coming off a heartbreaking loss, the Mountaineers come home to Morgantown for the first time this season. Their opponent, coming off a rough loss of their own, is the East Carolina Pirates. Here’s where both teams have their respective advantages:
West Virginia Advantages
ECU did not have a good QB situation last week. Gardner Minshew got things started for the Pirates but did not last a half when Thomas Sirk, the Duke transfer, took over. He completed 21 of his 35 passes for 210 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns. Not respectable numbers. He however did get the nod from head coach Scottie Montgomery for the showdown with the Mountaineers. For WVU, in the middle of a heartbreaking loss a star was born, or should I say, resurrected. After some first-game-in-over-a-year jitters, Will Grier shook off a shaky start to end up 31-of-53 passing for 371 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. This comparison isn’t even close. This one goes to the Mountaineers.
As bad as the QB game was for ECU last week, the running game was worse. Darrell Scott led the team in carries and yards (only 12-45), and has emerged to be the starting RB for the Pirates. No other ECU back had more than 10 yards, and this unit is a big weakness for the Pirates. On the Mountaineer side, the RB group is a near opposite of the WR group. WVU had a very productive running game, despite just handing the ball off 23 times. There’s talent from top to bottom on the depth chart, but not enough balls to go around. Justin Crawford had 106 yards on just 13 carries, and Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway had 69 yards combined on just 10 carries. The Mountaineers have a very good running back group and a big advantage over the Pirates.
The ECU line was a strength the last two years but this year it is a weakness. One of the biggest reasons is the loss of three-time all-AAC center J.T Boyd. The converted guard Garrett McGhin takes over at that position. And at right tackle, Brandon Smith was third team AAC last year. Both of the guards started for the first time in their college career last week for ECU, and that will be a big weakness in the O-line. WVU’s OL had a solid game vs VT, with Grier sacked just twice and only hurried seven times. Add to that the successful running game and the O-line had a good day. The Mountaineers take the OL battle.
ECU’s group lost a lot last year — including its No. 1 and 3 tacklers on the team — and returns only one starter. They also lost a whole linebacker on the field, this season head coach Scottie Montgomery changed the system from three D-linemen and four linebackers to a 4-3. The star of this group is second-year starter, Jordan Williams. He won the job in the final game of the season last year and had 14 tackles last Saturday vs JMU. The rest of the corps consists of players like Ray Tillman who did not start a game last year. This is a very inexperienced group for ECU. For WVU, the defense in general did not have a good game vs VT. They had trouble making the big plays when needed, and while that blame gets shared across all groups, the LB corps did play fairly well overall. Al-Rasheed Benton had eight tackles. In general, the WVU LB group is solid, but the loss of David Long hurts. The Mountaineers still take the LB battle, though, this week.
The ECU secondary is talented, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. The CB duo of Colby Globe and Corey Seargent are the real deal, but combine for just five starts. Hard hitting safety Travon Simmons will have a fun highlight reel. The worry is the FS Travon Simmons — he started one game last year, and is the weak link in what is a other wise is a solid secondary. The WVU secondary sent mixed signals vs VT, allowing Josh Jackson, not a strong passing QB, to take the Mountaineers deep a couple times. A very good first half mixed with a terrible second half leaves this position still up in the air for the Mountaineers. The positives were Hakeem Bailey, who led the team with eight tackles, and Devon Askew-Henry, who added three solo tackles of his own. Kyzir White also had five tackles. Advantage, Mountaineers.
WV does not have good special teams, but ECU’s are worse. ECU’s kicker Jake Verity was 1-2 on kicks last season and was 0-1 vs JMU. Punter Austin Barnes did net 49 yards a kick last week though. The return game is non existent, averaging just 1 yard per return last week. But the Mountaineers have their own issues. Mike Molina was great connecting on all his field goals and PAT attempts, but WVU’s biggest weakness on ST is their punting. Billy Kinney punted 9 times, which is a problem in its own right, but those nine punts averaged only 36 yards. Those are horrendous numbers and need to improve. WVU special teams are not good, but still better than ECU’s. Advantage, Mountaineers.
East Carolina Advantages
Even after losing a 1,700-yard WR, this matchup still goes to ECU. They bring back three of their top four receivers, who combined for 1,800 yards last fall. Jimmy Williams started 12 games last year and Davon Grayson started 16 over the last two. ECU has had great WRs the last couple of years, and if they can get the QB situation figured out, they have a crew that can put up some big numbers. For the Mountaineers, the WR group climbed my board after the VT game. Two very reliable receivers emerged. Gary Jennings was exceptional and David Sills V put on a show too. Grier will have targets to look for this season. This battle was close, but I give the final advantage to ECU.
Entering this year, ECU returns six of their top eight defensive linemen, and with Minnesota transfer Gaelin Elmore and top 20 recruit Yiannis Bowden filling in for the two departures, there is talent all over the line for ECU. They are, however, an inexperienced group, as the whole eight-man unit combines for only 18 total starts. The move from three DL to four should also add some pressure. For the Mountaineers, Adam Shuler had seven tackles vs VT and Reese Donahue added four. There is talent on the WVU line, but this group needs more production from the nose tackle position. The defensive line battle goes the Pirates way.
The Mountaineers should come into Morgantown hungry for a win. This is a game they need and should get. The East Carolina Pirates have talent at all positions but it just doesn’t match the talent of West Virginia. In my season preview I had the Mountaineers 38-17, I won’t be surprised if the score is worse for the Pirates. WV should win by a lot on Saturday.